Collections of Resources on Education for Sustainability and Green Living
Saturday, February 1, 2014
Building Social and Emotional Skills: Empathy
Image credit: iStockphoto
This is part seven of the nine-part series from the Project Happiness
curriculum. We are looking at important factors that influence the
happiness and social and emotional learning of elementary school age
children, helping students learn life skills, manage emotions, and
increase empathy. Each blog post features one letter of the acronym
H = Happiness
A = Appreciation
P = Passions and Strengths
P = Perspective
I = Inner Meanie/Inner Friend
N = Ninja Mastery
E = Empathy
S = So Similar
S = Share Your Gifts
In this post, we will explore Empathy.
Why is it important to "walk in someone else's shoes?" According to a study by the Brookings Institution,
"Higher curriculum standards don't correlate to higher student
achievement; empathy does." Empathy is also gaining attention as an
important component of emotional intelligence and as a way to reduce
bullying. When a person learns to understand and share the feelings of
another, the pro-social behavior that results shows up in better
relationships, closer friendships and stronger communities -- it's that
Here are five steps to cultivate empathy:
Watch & Listen: What is the other person saying, and what is his or her body language?
Remember: When did you feel the same way?
Imagine: How does the other person feel? And how would you feel in that situation?
Ask: Ask what the person is feeling.
Show You Care: Let him or her know that you care through your words and actions.
(Click the image to download a PDF of the lesson plan, and find additional resources at projecthappiness.org.)
There are many approaches to teaching empathy. Here are ten interesting ways that aspects of empathy are being introduced:
Start with Teachers: At a recent EduCon
Conference, an important issue came up. Teacher burnout increases when
teachers are expected to be supportive but receive no emotional support
at all. One teacher summarized it well: "How can I have empathy for my
students when no one will have empathy for me?" The solution one school
adopted was to have regular staff meetings in which everyone sat in a
circle and shared how things were going. Teachers felt closer to one
another in creating a more supportive environment where others cared
about how everyone was feeling.
Infants as Educators:Roots of Empathy
is a program that brings a neighborhood infant and parent to visit the
classroom every three weeks over the school year. Students are taught to
observe the baby's development and discuss his or her feelings, which
opens the door to students identifying their own feelings and advocating
kindness for the baby and for each other.
Validation and Trust: Making sure students have a voice -- and that all voices are heard -- is a building block for empathy. One teacher states:
The students learn that I trust them to be kind, loving and intelligent.
And they are learning to trust that I will think of them that way. We
learn to trust each other . . . help each other if we fall . . . and use
our voices to make change. When children first start to use their
voices in the classroom, it provides for a test as to how they may be
received. Will they be listened to? Will they be laughed at? Are they
Power of Teamwork: Working in teams to affect the greater good is a great way to creating a culture of empathy. At AXL Academy,
each child is assigned to a "crew" for two years. Inspired by Outward
Bound founder Kurt Hahn's quote, "We are not passengers in life, we are
crew," students learn to work together and create close bonds with one
another and their teacher.
Grading on Character: The school also grades
students on character, with big questions like, "What makes a good
friend?" broken down into learning outcomes; and with performance
targets, which teachers and students use to collaboratively evaluate
Practice Emotional Literacy: Having students learn
what feelings are (including reading people's faces and body language)
as well as how to name those feelings are necessary steps to empathy. If
they can learn how to express their feelings and how to interpret when
others express feelings, they have important tools for life.
Befriending the "Other": To teach empathy, one
school is helping students learn to initiate relationships by becoming
friends with students who are different, have a disability, or are new.
The motivation is friendship and better relationships.
Students as "Changemakers": When teachers guided
students to identify school problems and encouraged them to work
together to come up with solutions, this caused a shift in the school
culture. In one fourth grade class, the oldest grade in the school
decided to create reminders for the younger grades about how to treat
each other well. Because of the project, the older students began to see
themselves as role models and empathic leaders for the younger kids.
Service-Learning: In Georgetown Elementary Day School,
students do grade-wide service-learning projects. In pre-school and
first grade, for example, students made sandwiches for a local
nonprofit's family support programs. By the fifth grade, students could
choose their own service project culminating in four days of service and
Encourage Empathy at Home: Empathy is reinforced at
home when parents model it. When parents positively demonstrate sharing
their feelings in authentic, engaged and non-judgmental ways, kids
(influenced by mirror neurons) tend to imitate or mirror the intention and emotional state of what they see. Empathy is a family affair!